Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things Were So Easy Back Then

So over the last couple of weeks, I've been getting back into my sf classics reading. I pulled out my 1950's-era paperback of George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), and then downloaded a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (1939) on my iPhone. Old text, new tech--gotta love it!

Even though about 10 years separate these two books, I couldn't help but notice some similarities. In both, a single (white, male, graduate student) protagonist is thrust into a vastly alien landscape with no warning or preparation. In Earth Abides, Ish has been doing field research alone in the California wilderness. He's bitten by a snake, and thus misses both the end of civilization and the plague that causes it. In Lest Darkness Fall, Martin falls through a crack in time into Italy at the dawn of Europe's Dark Ages.

In the first third or so of each book, the protag has some time to take stock of the situation and get his bearings. Ish realizes the enormity of what happens, and is able to travel from San Francisco to New York and back (driving) before getting settling into establishing-a-future-for-humanity mode. Within the first day of being in historical Italy, Martin is able to understand the language, get some money, food, and lodging. The next day he's secured a loan to go into business introducing more advanced products to the ancient culture (starting with distilled brandy).

Let's start with the fact that Martin doesn't keel over from an ancient disease that he's not immune to. Even though he takes great care with his hygiene, given the prevalence of air- and water-borne diseases in ancient cities, this is a lot to swallow. And I find Ish's cross-country odyssey likewise full of super-human luck. I couldn't shake the feeling that both authors were glossing over huge numbers of practical difficulties in order to tell the stories they wanted to tell.

Which are both good stories, don't get me wrong. Even though it took me awhile to warm to Stewart's style in Earth Abides, it eventually won me over, especially the periodic interludes that explained how the natural world was adapting to the absence of humans as the decades pass. Apparently Stewart wrote other books that focused on the natural world rather than the human one, and I think that's the primary strength of this classic. I was also impressed that the central human relationship of the book was interracial, even though the narrative never makes a big deal of that. That had to be incredibly progressive for the time. Lest Darkness Fall was even easier to like. Martin's interactions with the easily-caricatured Italians and Goths are really funny, and the whole thing is fast-paced thanks to the aforementioned glossing over of difficulties.

Lest Darkness ends on a more triumphal note than the more elegiac Earth Abides. Martin has clear-cut goals (introducing technological and political innovations and stabilizing an Italian-Goth kingdom so that southern Europe doesn't enter into the Dark Ages) and is 100% successful is achieving them. Ish has more nebulous goals (trying to teach the children of his community enough so that they won't have to re-invent everything once the resources of the old world finally run out), but is only moderately successful. He doesn't manage to pass on the gift of literacy, and it doesn't take more than two generations for the younger cohort to return to magical thinking about the world. However, he does manage to make sure that they know about bows and arrows and how to make fire, so that's something.

Of course, both these books are problematic from today's point of view: Lest Darkness is pretty much exactly the kind of story that uses history as an theme park that Judith Tarr talks about in this post. And Earth Abides uses a terribly inaccurate view of 'primitive' anthropology as its model for how a post-technological tribal society might evolve. However, there's no arguing how influential both these stories were: Sprague de Camp's tale helped establish the entire field of alternate history that has thrived ever since, and Stewart's post-apocalyptic tale is one of the founding models of that trope.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Critical Reading List

While I'm list-making, I thought that I might also make a post detailing the critical works related to genre that I've read and still need to read. Lists like these definitely seem to help me focus when I'm staring at my to-read piles and asking myself, "What should I read next?" I hope that other folks will find them useful too. (The dates on many of these may be inaccurate--in some cases I may have dates from a later edition instead of original publication.) In the comments, feel free to suggest works to add or works that can be skipped. I've marked the ones I think (or suspect) are especially useful/important with **.

To Read
  • Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction, J. O. Bailey [1947]
  • Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach [1947]
  • Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1953]
  • The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism [1959]
  • **In Search of Wonder: Essays on Science Fiction, Damon Knight [1960]
  • Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis, Alexei Panshin [1968]
  • Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1974]
  • The Craft of Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1976]
  • **The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Samuel R. Delany [1977]
  • Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, H. Bruce Franklin [1980]
  • Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin [1982]
  • David Lindsay, Gary K. Wolfe [1982]
  • **How to Suppress Women's Writing, Joanna Russ [1983]
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth [1983]
  • Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf, Algis Budrys [1985]
  • **Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss [1986]
  • The John W. Campbell Letters, John W. Campbell [1986]
  • The Tale that Wags the God, James Blish [1987]
  • The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany [1988]
  • Grumbles from the Grave, Robert A. Heinlein [1989]
  • Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery [1992]
  • Reading by Starlight, Damien Broderick [1995]
  • Outposts: Literatures of Milieux, Algis Budrys [1996]
  • The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch [1998]
  • Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Carl Freedman [2000]
  • Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, Anthony R. Lewis [2000]
  • The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, Karen L. Hellekson [2001]
  • Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery [2002]
  • Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, De Witt Douglas Kilgore [2003]
  • **x, y, z, t: Dimensions of Science Fiction, Damien Broderick [2004]
  • Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, ed. Jane Espenson [2004]
  • A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference, Jeffrey Allen Tucker [2004]
  • Bound to Please, Michael Dirda [2005]
  • Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Michael Dirda [2005]
  • My Mother was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles [2005]
  • Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Justine Larbalestier [2006]
  • Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John C. Rieder [2008]
  • The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, Peter Swirski [2008]
  • On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • A Short History of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal, ed. Helen Merrick [2009]
  • Chicks Dig Timelords, ed. Lynne Thomas and Tara O'Shea [2010]
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism [2010]
  • Twenty-First Century Gothic, ed. Daniel Olson [2010]
  • Pardon this Intrusion, John Clute [2011]
  • **The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn [2011, pending]

Already Read
  • Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, Sam Moskowitz [1954]
  • New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis [1960]
  • **The Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction, William Atheling, Jr. (James Blish) [1964]
  • More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction, William Atheling, Jr. (James Blish) [1970]
  • The Futurians, Damon Knight [1970]
  • **The Known and the Unknown: the Iconography of Science Fiction, Gary K. Wolfe [1979]
  • Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin [1979]
  • Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, James Gunn [1982]
  • **Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delany [1984]
  • Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Gary K. Wolfe [1986]
  • The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest of Transcendence, Alexei Panshin [1989]
  • I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov [1995]
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the Worlds of Science Fiction, David Hartwell [1996]
  • Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton [1997]
  • **How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, N. Katherine Hayles [1999]
  • Edging into the Future, ed. Veronica Hollinger [2002]
  • **The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier [2002]
  • **Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, Riki Wilchins [2004]
  • Soundings: Reviews 1992 - 1996, Gary K. Wolfe [2005]
  • The SEX Column and Other Misprints, David Langford [2005]
  • Polder: A Festschrift for John Clute and Judith Clute, ed. Farah Mendlesohn [2006]
  • **About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews, Samuel R. Delany [2006]
  • **James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Philips [2006]
  • **The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn [2006]
  • **The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ [2007]
  • Writing the Other, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward [2008]
  • The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. [2008]
  • What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid [2008]
  • **Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn [2008]
  • A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed [2008]
  • How Fiction Works, James Wood [2009]
  • Hope-in-the-Mist, Michael Swanwick [2009]
  • The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction, Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Michael Chabon [2009]
  • Canary Fever: Reviews, John Clute [2009]
  • Bearings: Reviews 1997 - 2001, Gary K. Wolfe [2010]
  • **Evaporating Genres, Gary K. Wolfe [2011]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Golden Age Reading List

For my own reference, to be updated as I read:

  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes I, IIa, IIb edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova
  • World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt [1945]
  • Earth Abides, George Stewart [1949]
  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp [1939]
  • Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson [1948]
  • The Once and Future King, T. H. White [1958]
  • Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance [1950]
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller [1960]
  • City, Clifford Simak [1952]
  • The Space Merchants, Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth [1952]
  • Slan, A. E. van Vogt [1946]
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish [1953]
  • Mathematics of Magic, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt [1941]
  • The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber [1964]
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett [1953]
  • Conjure Wife, Fritz Leiber [1943]
  • Best of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin [1946]
  • Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake [1946]
  • Fury, Henry Kuttner [1947]
  • The Humanoids, Jack Williamson [1949]
  • Star Man's Son [1952], or Star Soldiers [1953], or Uncharted Stars [1969], by Andre Norton
  • Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker [1952]
  • Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut [1959]
  • Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut [1963]
  • Three to Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson [1959]
  • Way Station, Clifford Simak [1963]
  • The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley [1958]
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper [1962]
  • The Big Time, Fritz Leiber [1958]
  • Portable Novels of Science, ed. Donald A. Wollheim [1945]
  • They'd Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton [1954]
  • Best of C. M. Kornbluth [1939-1958]
  • The Body Snatchers, J. Finney [1955]
  • What Mad Universe, F. Brown [1949]
  • A Star Above and Other Stories, Chad Oliver [1955]
  • Untouched by Human Hands, Robert Sheckley [1954]

Might hold over for the New Wave:

  • Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber [1970]
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson [1970]